BANGOR — Grayson Cole was in the chute, atop a 1,500-pound ball of angry energy named Panic Button. In these last few moments before the gate opened and Panic Button was released, Cole made sure his right hand was tightly locked onto the saddle. Cole gave his right hand a few quick jabs with his left, and he was ready.

It was over in 3.34 seconds. Panic Button ran straight out of the chute and bucked three violent times. Cole rode those shockwaves, but as Panic Button began a fourth buck, the rider was dislodged. Cole didn’t fall off Panic Button as much as he spun off the back like he was attempting a showy dismount. Cole landed on his feet, and turned and stared at the bull that kept him five seconds from glory.

The crowd of a couple thousand fans at the Cross Insurance Center for Friday’s opening night of the Professional Bull Riders Velocity Tour barely had time to begin cheering before applause turned to awwws. Cole safely walked out of the dirt-lined ring and a team of bull fighters nudged Panic Button back to the paddock.

The PBR Velocity Tour is in Bangor for a three-day competition in which riders take one turn each day on a randomly-selected bull. One shot per day at the elusive eight second ride. Eight seconds gets you points, and points get you paid. Two weeks ago at a competition in Shipshewana, Indiana, Cole took first place, and with it $14,408.81.

Just 21, Cole is touted by the PBR as one of the up-and-coming riders, someone to keep an eye on. Cole conducted phone interviews Thursday afternoon, and recorded some interviews with local television news Friday morning. Despite promoting Cole as one of the faces of its sport, the PBR declined to make him available after Friday night’s competition.

So we don’t know what Cole was thinking as he and Panic Button parted ways after 3.34 seconds of contact. Thursday afternoon, Cole, a native of New Riggold, Pennsylvania, did talk about what he’s thinking in the moments before the gate opens and his world turns to bucking chaos.

“Win. I’m just focused on riding and keep fighting,” Cole said in a phone interview Thursday.

Cole fell in love with bull riding when he was 3, when his parents took him to a rodeo. At 7, Cole rode a calf. He kept at it, and by 2019 Cole was doing well in open and semipro competitions. His friend Daylon Swearingen, also a professional rider, encouraged Cole to give the PBR a try. In early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the tour down, Cole placed second in his first event, the Worcester (Mass.) Rumble. Two weeks later, Cole took third in the Bangor Classic. He’s currently ranked 51st in the world.

Bull rider Dalton Krantz prepares to ride Slammer the bull during a Professional Bull Riders Velocity Tour rodeo competition Friday night at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

There is always some fear when you get on a bull, Cole said. Fear is a sign of respect. All riders wear padded protective vests. Most competitors Friday night in Bangor, including Cole, vwore helmets complete with a facemask.

“There’s always a fear, but as I grew up and rode more and more, I learned to deal with it. Keep it on the backside of my brain,” Cole said.

The sport is dangerous. The clues to that are obvious and everywhere. Friday, rider Ben Morales was quickly thrown from Chug A Lug. Morales got up and staggered a few steps before collapsing in the ring. Paramedics carried Morales out of the ring as the boisterous crowd went silent. As soon as Morales was out of sight, the pubic address announcer pumped up the crowd again as the next rider took his turn. According to Easton Colvin, the PBR’s public relations manager, Morales suffered a dislocated hip and as of Saturday afternoon was resting and feeling better, although he will not compete the rest of the weekend.

Rider Vinicius Ranier was tossed from the back of Jump Start like a paper airplane. A bull named Bart flung rider Devon Weaver back into the metal gate. When you get thrown, you get up as fast as you can and you run before you’re trampled, if you can.

Cole said his injuries so far have consisted of three broken ankles and a few broken ribs. His scariest moment came at the Cowtown Rodeo in New Jersey. Cole went to get off the bull, and his hand got caught in the tail of his rope.

“As my feet hit the ground, my hand jerked through my legs and flipped me. I was on my back and I looked up and the bull’s feet are coming down. I got stepped on on my face, but I never broke anything,” Cole said.

Cody McCandless gets thrown to the ground by Man Cow during a Professional Bull Riders Velocity Tour rodeo competition Friday night at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Riders and bulls are paired through a random draw. Yes, there are some bulls you’d rather not see next to your name, Cole said. Panic Button’s average buckoff time is 2.66 seconds, and only rider Dakota Lewis has managed eight seconds on the bull in the eight times he’s been ridden in competition. So at 3.34 seconds, Cole did better than most.

“There’s a couple that you don’t want to get on, or you’d much rather pick something else. It don’t really matter to me. I’m still there to do my job. I’m still there to try to win,” Cole said.

Only two of the 39 riders Friday night managed eight seconds. Seth White tamed Mad Muley, who seemed bored by the whole thing, strolled out of the chute and needed prodding to buck at all. For much of his eight seconds, White may as well have been riding a couch. Kyle Jones had a tougher time riding Free Loader, but completed the eight second gauntlet and entered Saturday’s round in first place.

The question is asked. Why? Why put yourself in harm’s way like this? The answer is the same for a bull rider or downhill skier or racecar driver or football player. Because it’s fun. Adrenaline is fun. It’s worth the risks.

“I’m hoping I can do this for as long as my body will let me. As long as I can still compete and still hold my own, I’ll be riding bulls,” Cole said.

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